Wednesday, February 25, 2009

What does "good" look like? The story of Westville

There's plenty to complain about when it comes to crime neighborhoods. Not enough cops. No social help. Groups tripping over each other. Warehousing the poor into tract housing. The list goes on.

What does the "ideal" neighborhood look like?

I doubt there is an “ideal” safe neighborhood. Still, it is easier to complain about what is bad rather than imagining what good looks like. So imagine this...

Imagine a neighborhood in an old historic city, population 130,000 (300,000 in surrounding areas). Imagine over a third of the population are poor and the city has a long history of crime. There are, of course, safe places sprinkled around as there are nasty gang-ridden crime hotspots. Our neighborhood lies on the north-west corridor of the city.

This is a real neighborhood where I used to live. It is called Westville and it is in New Haven, Connecticut. It came to mind when I thought about good neighborhood development.

You can live in New Haven and never see violent crime, or you can walk in some neighborhoods and see gang shootings. In the 1990s, as elsewhere, crime declined. But murders have changed direction since 2000 and there are worries about teen violence. Youth curfews are discussed even though of 9,000 city teens only a few hundred account for most teen violence. Still, shootings and violence ripple through some neighborhoods like fear-generating tsunami.

Then there is Westville. In the north of Westville, West Rock Mountain towers over some of the poorest homes. In the south of Westville, some of the wealthiest. In the more-or-less center lies a small commercial corridor with restaurants, shops, a nearby park, and mixed housing of various incomes. To me this core area was the most vulnerable to the larger forces of change, change that might go in either direction.

Over the years a small group of residents, artists, and business owners began to turn things around. First they organized pot-lucks, art-walks, festivals, and other informal get-togethers. That got people to dialogue. Then a local activist convinced housing groups to look at Westville. Change at that point was slow.

I went to one meeting where residents told a private developer not to go away, but instead to modify the shape and scale of his multi-unit housing – some of which he did. I saw police work with neighbors at a liquor board hearing to get a bar owner to curb disorder problems at his bar. I watched shop owners fixing their storefronts with city funding and then hiring someone to sweep the street.

On their own these events are unremarkable. Coordinated together over time, they add up. They ignited community cohesion that triggered change. When a plan surfaced to widen streets and increase speeds along the main street through Westville, residents sought and won a historic district designation to stop it. If you've ever read work by famed urbanist Jane Jacobs - Westville is history repeating itself.

Today a permanent neighborhood association has formed to carry work forward. It connects Westville together. Their websites say it all.

See the Westville site
See their neighborhood organization

You could say Westville was successful because rich residents to the south anted up and got cops to tackle crime. You could, but that’s not how it happened. Police played a role. But in many instances they were asked to play a role, not do it themselves. Nowadays you can see from the Westville websites how vibrant the place is today. Take a look at the crime maps of New Haven and Westville.

Look at the crime maps

Search the map from Jan to Dec 2008. You’ll see only a tiny handful of crime reports in Westville compared to everywhere else in the city. At the beginning, when I lived there, crime was more common. I brought my university crime prevention students to Westville to study crime trends. It was a very different place then to what it has become today.

Westville is not perfect. Nowhere is. There are complaints about rowdy students in the new multi-family housing. There is a rash of graffiti. Yet people are speaking up and coordinating their actions in an organized way. Clearly, something positive is going on. We can learn from this.

I once asked what is meant by the term "healthy neighborhood". A healthy immune system lets a person recover quickly after an illness. Same in a healthy neighborhood like Westville. That is what neighborhoods should look like.